The queen of streets
Its face is changing from brick to glass, but the heart of Auckland’s main street still pumps to the same old beat. Whether it’s billions for a bank deal or a buck for a busker, Queen Street is the home of the wheelers and dealers; day and night, a theatre of human exchanges.
A city needs a focus of identity and a token of status. A promenade, an arena. A place with a bit of glamour and mythology, where land prices soar and the buildings, too. A showcase for valuable merchandise. An equivalent of the front parlour. Somewhere nice.
That place is Queen Street—Auckland’s golden mile. Anything which happens in this street of maximum exposure and prestige acquires a certain validity, an aura.
Personal memories of Queen Street are part of the Auckland experience. Mine, going back about 55 years, start with excursions to town as a special treat, with lunch of pie, bread and butter at John Court’s an integral part. A movie matinee would follow—perhaps Errol Flynn as Robin Hood at the Civic, Bobby Breen in San Francisco, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
You wore shirt, sandals and solar topee, and you held your mother’s hand.
You were probably snapped in passing by a street photographer outside the Bank of New Zealand. He pressed a card into your hand, and you later went to his city office to pore over proof sheets and make your order. Auckland is full of now-historic family photographs taken in this way.
Next in my memory come the great wartime parades down Queen Street—the first in 1940, with the boys in lemon-squeezer hats with rifles at the slope marching off to war, many never to return. A few weeks later, in February 1940, the city hailed the crew of the triumphant cruiser Achilles, back from the Battle of the River Plate. There were columns of new-landed Americans in 1943, and in some of these parades battle tanks chopped up the Queen Street asphalt with their tracks.
Favourite vantage points for schoolboys like myself were the lower ledges of the now-vanished Union Bank of Australia, corner of Queen and Victoria Streets, and the Bank of New Zealand.
Rapture took to the street on both VE (Victory in Europe) and VJ (Victory over Japan) Days, in 1945, when people danced the conga and the hokey-tokey, kissed strangers and brandished foaming beer bottles. Small fry who had thrilled to more warlike displays in Queen Street fled before this kind of adult excess.
Mass enthusiasm on a similar scale is hard to find until the “Kiwis Care” march of 1981.
Later, as a young adult walking into town to save a twopenny bus fare, about 1950, I remember clearly the mounting excitement of getting closer to Queen Street, the great terminus, market place and throbbing artery of the city. There were cinemas, pubs, billiard rooms and restaurants, and milk bars sublimating the city in ice cream with their famed Rangitoto Special sundaes: proud multicoloured peaks surmounted by pink wafer biscuits.
The faintly raffish coffee bars offering the double stimulation of coffee and live music were still to come. We were just discovering hamburgers, and wondered if we were making them right.
We could, however, get excellent pie, peas and mash at the pie carts just off Queen Street in Wellesley and Quay Streets. For maximum mushiness, we asked for them in a paper bag.
All Aucklanders have their own relationship with this special place. The wonder is that the street ever made the grade. In the beginning, it just happened to be a spot where the water was deep enough and the land flat enough to get goods ashore.
Truly, Queen Street in its first few years was a place of almost Biblical pestilence. Yet when fire, flood and mud abated, and the clouds of dust and flies had cleared, there remained one persistent bugbear: the problem of moving goods and passengers out of the Queen Street gully.
This was such a constant difficulty last century that a writer in the 1902 Cyclopedia of New Zealand cried woefully, “Verily Auckland’s early road engineers were horse-killers of the first magnitude.” Aucklanders have always had a competitive spirit when it comes to horses. Cabbies showed it by stoning the city’s first horse-drawn tram in 1884 and trying to block the rails.
The problem of the hills (an extra horse was always on hand to get the Ponsonby tram up Wellesley Street) was partially solved by foreshore access both east and west of Queen Street by the 1880s. But, as the Cyclopedia points out, for 30 years the only way to reach Mechanics Bay from downtown was by Shortland Street, Eden Crescent and Constitution Hill.
Settlement was not long confined to the gully, yet for many years there were only two ways out to the east and south: Shortland and Wakefield Streets. The latter, “the better of the two, was blessed with a grade of one in eight or nine” yet all the horse buses to Onehunga had to take it, says the Cyclopedia, adding that “a jaded, dejected look was common to Auckland horseflesh.”
Tired horses were still, in 1902, “being whipped up hills.” Indeed, horses were quite common in Auckland streets until the 1940s.
The feisty but unnamed writer of 91 years ago, bridling over equine inequity, had a belated solution. Suppose Queen Street had forked at the corner of Victoria Street East, and a diagonal route at an easy grade had extended to Symonds Street, somewhere near the top of Wakefield Street? That would have got Auckland “out of the hole in which the business part lies.”
As it was, the city’s layout was bungled from the start, the main roads following ridges and gullies, and the others making the shortest and therefore the steepest cross-connections.
The 1902 introduction of electric trams—which did 6 to 8 mph uphill—and the power of the motor car finally broke the tyranny of Auckland’s encircling ridges.
It could have been worse. We could have got Felton Mathew’s original plan, which put the hub of Auckland (which he called Trafalgar Circus) up on Albert Park, with terraced quadrants (of which only Waterloo survives) striping the hillside. It was Mathew who gave Queen Street its name and location (see fold-out).
The fact is, streets are abstractions, shafts of space defined by an absence of obstruction, and are easily created and destroyed—as can be seen by the invention of our entire motorway network. Streets can die, like Little Queen Street, just west of the big one, which was buried under the downtown development. New streets are made: Mayoral Drive is an example.
Yet Queen Street had an unwavering destiny, rising from the mud to become Auckland’s most noble thoroughfare. Old photographs show better than any words the speed, vigour and untidiness of this process. So much was happening so swiftly as the margins of the town pushed out into the sea that it must have been as much a marvel to the people caught up in it as it is to us today. So much excavation and upheaval, mud and wreckage. So much sawn timber, so many new structures, so many boats. And all the time Queen Street was gaining stature as the town’s main social and emotional centre.
Poring over the old photographs, I get an extraordinary sense of fraternity with the people in them. Our history is short enough for there still to be considerable overlap in time and place and memory. Someone like myself, born in the early 1930s, grew up amid the crumbling, rusting detritus of the 19th century—and with people who were adult before this century began. Long-vanished Queen Street buildings were, and are, clearly remembered. I know how people in the photographs feel as they walk pensively in a busy throng, seek the shade on a hot day, crane for a view of a parade or run for a tram. Petty preoccupations can be adduced. I have been there too.
Though the Auckland conurbation now has several centres, Queen Street must always be the touchstone of modern settlement, and a person’s first contact with it may be something they never forget—whether that be the sight of the Queen’s horse guards in 1901, or Santa Claus in 1992.
When the historic 1901 procession of 1000 Imperial troops, who had come across after the inaugural ceremonies of the Australian Commonwealth, arrived, the New Zealand Herald of February 18,1901, panted, “The Life Guards actually in Queen Street. The excited throng can hardly believe it.”
For Jim Ryan, aged 88, of Epsom, the first memory of Queen Street was looking out of an upstairs window in his grandparents’ bakeryMcKeowns’ at No. 5—and seeing a huge arch right over the road. The year was 1908, the date August 9. The arch was part of the welcome decorations for the 16-ship American Great White Fleet, which was on a world tour to demonstrate US naval power. It was the mightiest battle fleet ever to visit New Zealand. Towns throughout New Zealand put up their welcoming banners, and more than 100,000 cheering New Zealanders crowded into Queen Street to welcome Admiral Sperry and his sailors.
Auckland was exciting itself with flags and triumphal arches as early as 1869 for the visit of Queen Victoria’s second son, the Duke of Edinburgh. Royal fever has continued to flare intermittently, notably for the present Queen in 1953, and Charles, Di and baby William in 1983.
In 1865, crowds thronged Queen Street to a late hour to see the new gas lighting. They seemed “never too weary of staring” at the fishtail burners, said the Herald, and there were “occasional rushes” to other streets to see some “particularly effective illumination.”
Flourmiller J. C. Firth gave Auckland a foretaste of electric lighting in 1889 with several lights installed at his own expense in Queen Street between Quay and Victoria Streets, and powered by the Northern Roller Milling Company’s dynamo. The city had to wait until 1908 before a full public electricity supply was initiated. (As a matter of interest, Auckland City won a national award in 1984 for its Queen Street lighting between Wellesley and Victoria Streets. In that same year it was suggested that fluorescent and neon lighting in the street was causing 40 oriental plane trees to change from deciduous to evergreen.)
Auckland’s growing taste for mass enthusiasm, patriotic or otherwise, seems to have hit its stride in the 20th century, especially after Queen Street became the country’s first asphalt street in 1902. The horses tended to slip, but people had cleaner shoes. The finished surface was melted smooth with shovel-like implements heated in fiery braziers. The result was a solid-looking job. though tram travellers will recall how the tracks came to undulate in later years.
And in 1902 the first electric trams, with ex-mayor Sir John Logan Campbell driving the leading car, had to forge through crowds. Commencement of the service had been postponed for a week because three of the 11 motormen being brought from Sydney drowned in the wreck of the Elingamite on the Three Kings, off North Cape. One of the original tram drivers was quoted years later as saying that the first day brought innumerable dog deaths as the unfortunate animals tried to bite the iron wheels. They soon learnt their lesson, and the slaughter ended in a couple of days.
Multitudes assembled for the opening of the new Chief Post Office in 1912. This relegated the railway station, which had enjoyed a Queen Street frontage since 1885, to the area of the present bus station, where it stayed until 1930. Now deserted, the grand edifice at the bottom of Queen Street awaits a decision on its future.
In 1913 there was industrial drama in Lower Queen Street as strikers were faced down by hundreds of mounted farmers known as Massey’s Cossacks. What had started as a dispute over the payment of travelling time to shipwrights grew into a major confrontation between the government and trade unions. Nearly 14,000 workers—painters, labourers, carpenters, miners, butchers and brewery workers—went on strike. The Government responded by recruiting special constables from the farming community to protect strike breakers loading farm produce on to ships bound for Britain.
Since then, Queen Street has seen hundreds of political demonstrations and parades, the most sensational being the 1932 battles of the unemployed with police. Shops were looted, about 200 were injured and more than 80 arrested. A flare-up of a different kind during a free rock concert in Aotea Square in December 1984 brought violent street battles between fans and police. In a few short, shocking hours, Queen Street glass shop fronts were smashed, shops were looted and cars were overturned.
Tin Lizzies vibrated with pride on November 8, 1918, when New Zealand and Australia celebrated the end of World War I three days early, due to a premature American press message. Eye witnesses reported that “as if by magic, Queen Street filled with people . . . strangers hugged one another. Auckland just went mad; bells, sirens, shouts, cheers . . . I don’t think staid Auckland has ever witnessed such crowds and happy abandon before.”
But something more sinister than bunting was blooming: the influenza epidemic. Hugs, kisses and shared drinks could only increase its speed. By mid-afternoon, health officials, thoroughly alarmed at the mass of “laughing, crying, coughing and obviously sick people” in Queen Street, had moved police into the Queen Street hotels to tell proprietors to close at 4.30 p.m. sharp or risk prosecution. On November 12, when news of the true armistice reached New Zealand, official celebrations were forbidden in Auckland.
At the height of the epidemic, during those summer months of 1918, the problem of how to dispose of hundreds of bodies at once was acute. A temporary morgue was set up in Victoria Park. Canvas-covered trucks rumbled down Queen Street, loading their awful cargo on to the twice-daily cemetery trains to Waikumete. Figures quoted for deaths in Auckland during the worst months—October and November—range from 1,128 to around 1,600.
A trip up Queen Street is like a walk into an intertidal zone. Footsteps have come and gone, but the mind’s eye can still turn up a fascinating spectrum of past life, like a litter of seashells.
Many Aucklanders will remember the serried line of Victorian buildings, like crumbling battlements, that faced the CPO across the downtown area which, in its day, was a gathering place of trams and hansom cabs. There are still a few people around who can remember the flick of the cabby’s whip over the top of the passenger box. The driver sat behind.
Up by the Customs Street corner was the Big Orange juice bar. Over its doorway there was an orange. And what an orange. A monstrous orange. Could it be real, the kids wondered? We would duck under it into the shop where one of several women would splosh orange into a glass at great speed. Outside the door there was a tramway control box overseeing the spaghetti junction of tracks at the Customs Street corner; there was another at Wellesley Street.
Photographs of street scenes right up to the early 1920s are remarkable for the nonchalance of pedestrians who, confident that the traffic is too slow to cause any surprises, stand chatting in the roadway. Signs were posted warning that horses must be walked around corners.
One important sidelight to the age of horse transport was the work of the so-called “sparrow-starvers”— council employees whose job it was to leap into the road with pooperscoopers and clean up after the horses. There were collection points at the kerb, from which the dung was shovelled into a dray for bulk removal.
A short way up Queen Street, two major landmarks faced each other for many years: the first New Zealand Insurance Co building, erected in the late 1860s, and that gothic, turreted pile, the Victoria Arcade, on the eastern side.
The insurance building had a clock tower that was gas-lit from 1878, and it was altogether the city’s finest structure at the time. The clock was considered the municipal timepiece until 1911, when the Town Hall clock was commissioned.
The other landmark, the Victoria Arcade, occupying the block between Fort and Shortland Streets, was a gloomy masterpiece of the bricklayer’s art. Its removal, like that of so many other city buildings in the 1970s, seems to have met with determined public acquiescence.
Up past the magnificent 1867 Bank of New Zealand building (in Tasmanian stone), Centrepoint Mall stands on the site which used to be Milne and Choyce, one of the street’s big three department stores. Over the way is Vulcan Lane, named for the 1843 Vulcan forge of Scotsman James McLeod. Its two venerable hotels, the Queen’s Ferry and the Occidental, date from the 1850s and the 1870s respectively. The lane was less than respectable in the 1880s, sometimes being called Vulture’s Lane. Its fortunes have steadily improved, especially since it became a pedestrian mall in 1968.
There were a couple of public shooting galleries in this mid-section of Queen Street—perhaps the 1920s equivalent of today’s video games parlours.
From Victoria to Wellesley Street—with its 246, Countrywide and Strand Arcade shopping complexes, the Smith and Caughey department store, the 1884 Auckland Savings Bank building, McDonalds and the Mid-City centre, is a particularly golden part of the mile. Four popular old cinemas went from this sector: the Plaza, Regent, Majestic and Strand (or Cinerama). But we still have the nest of cinemas further up—and opposite, the fabled and fabulous Civic.
Inside the Civic, the velvet–blue starred ceiling replicates the Southern Sky. Everything else inside the four walls is as far removed from the Southern Hemisphere as it possibly could be. With its minarets, Hindu gods, monkeys, elephants and red-eyed panthers, the theatre’s wonderful interior is as close to taking a magic carpet ride as a human could wish.
At the end of each “talkie” movie an orchestral barge would rise out of the pit, and dancing would begin on the dance floor below. Watching from the circle, my grandmother, a practical woman, would worry about her chances of getting drenched under the open sky.
The steep, ferny gully further up Queen Street was not at first the preferred way of reaching the Karangahape Road ridge, Greys Avenue being considered better. But by 1878 the fixing of a permanent gradient for the top end of Queen Street was a hot local issue. When it was done, the spoil was used to fill the raupo swamp below where the Town Hall now stands.
For many years, the tram tracks went up to Wellesley Street and then turned to east and west, but did not continue straight ahead to Karangahape Road. When they were finally extended, they had to go on either side of a statue of Sir George Grey. The steps around the statue were the haunt of idle fellows passing the time of day. The Queen Street traffic was evidently no inconvenience at all. Sir George was removed to Albert Park in 1922, and still stands there. The tram tracks around him had to be relaid.
The site of the present Aotea Square and its $128.5 million cultural and entertainment centre has been a scene of man-made upheaval on a volcanic scale. Swept aside were sundry early uses, culminating in the usual ragged rank of old brick buildings facing Queen Street, and a tawdry fun fair cleared for parking space after the war. In the 1970s came massive excavation for the multi-level Civic underground carpark—for once, a city building that went down instead of up.
Though it now has several substantial new buildings, the upper part of Queen Street has never matched the lower sections for ground value, glamour and sheer interest. This is still the head of the gully, filling an evolutionary gap between the somnolent Myers Park on its western side, and the main focus of the street further down. In fact, if anything about Upper Queen Street has caught the public imagination and stayed in its memory, it is probably the denture ditty advertising the dental repair firm at number 492.
Older people remember other things about Queen Street: the smell of harbour mud and ferry smoke and sawdust from the many mills, the clank of a passing tram, the plod of a cart horse, the cry of a hawker.
But the accretion of endeavours and events we call Queen Street is not just a place of spirits and memories and high finance. It has been physically dismantled and rebuilt several times over, so that today’s towering symbols of permanence will themselves no doubt be superseded in time. But the rut in the middle will still be there. And its name will be Queen Street.